James Bond epitomises a fantasy of how men can act in the world. While Ian Fleming’s novels remain popular, it is the 007 of film who lives most vividly in our imaginations.
Each cinematic Bond incarnation, from Sean Connery through Roger Moore and up to Daniel Craig, embodies and perhaps even influences the changing values of his times as he moves through exotic locations, seduces women, makes use of the latest improbable technologies and relies on uncomfortable racial stereotypes.
In a time when Britain is haphazardly redefining what it means to be a United Kingdom, it is worth our while to look back at the way in which Bond has expressed our nation’s concerns and how the various actors who have embodied him since the 1960s have brought something new to both the franchise and to our conceptions of what it means to be British.
The choice of Sean Connery was not immediate and the role had been offered to Richard Burton, Cary Grant and James Mason among others before Connery accepted the role in Dr No (1962). Dr No was Fleming’s sixth Bond novel and while there had been an 1954 American television adaptation of his first book, Casino Royale, American film producers struggled with Bond since he was apparently “too British” as well as “too blatantly sexual”.
The brutal violence of the novels was also a problem, and this accounts for the comic tone of the first and subsequent film versions. While Fleming was himself of Scottish descent, he was initially against Connery’s casting since he thought he was too brutish but was eventually impressed by Connery’s portrayal. So much so, that he subsequently created a Scottish back story for Bond in his 1964 novel of You Only Live Twice, in which Bond’s father is revealed to have come from Glencoe. While Connery’s Bond establishes the clichés associated with the character: a suave, yet cold-hearted, seducer and killer who is nevertheless loyal and, in Dr No, surprisingly neither hideously sexist nor racist, despite one or two uncomfortable moments in the film’s Jamaican setting.
Connery’s Bond is devastatingly attractive to women and his seductions are always presented as consensual and satisfying to all concerned, even when each knows that the other is using sex to gain some advantage or other. Women constantly gawp at Bond in Dr No and while this was an integral part of the masculine fantasy of 007, Connery does owe his casting to Dana Broccoli who persuaded her husband, the producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, that he would be a popular choice. Ian Fleming’s girlfriend, Blanche Blackwell, agreed.
After five films starring Sean Connery, including From Russia with Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964), the series was so popular that it was ripe for a parody. In Columbia’s 1967 spoof Casino Royale, David Niven starred as Sir James Bond who is forced out of retirement to tackle Orson Welles’s Le Chiffre in a rather haphazard and endearingly bonkers manner. The film is perhaps most notable for extended cameos from Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress and even a brief appearance by Jean-Paul Belmondo. Viewers in Scotland might be amused, or exasperated, by a long and farcical cèilidh in M’s Scottish castle, shot, of course, in Ireland. Niven does get the best line though: “It’s depressing that the word secret agent becomes synonymous with sex maniac.” Introduced as giving us both a “different Bond” and a “different Bond woman”, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service brought in unknown Australian George Lazenby as a Bond “with a heart” who falls in love with Diane Rigg’s Countess Tracy di Vicenzo. While Lazenby has never really been seen as anyone’s favourite Bond, the film itself has gained in popularity over the years and is sometimes considered the best of the series until the Daniel Craig years. Diane Rigg had come from her enormous success as the spy Emma Peel in the The Avengers, playing opposite Patrick Macnee. Rigg’s late-1960s fetish style was both erotic and ridiculous in equal measure and her turn in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service rather overshadows Lazenby’s good guy Bond.
Of all the Bonds, Roger Moore is perhaps the most controversial since Moore amplified the comedy of Connery’s iteration into what can only be described as high camp. While Moore’s 007 remained a highly accomplished seducer of women, his prowess was knowingly arch and, in the parlance of today, his performance of hyper-masculinity might even be thought of as “queer”. Live and Let Die was chosen above Diamonds Are Forever as the next entry in the cycle as the producers thought that they should capitalise on the notoriety of the Black Panthers and introduce a black villain.
While it would have certainly made the film more interesting if Bond’s love interest, Solitaire, had been played by Diana Ross as initially suggested, the powers that be settled finally on Jane Seymour. Roger Moore continued to play Bond until he was 58 and while some may find his campness off-putting, it is clear that he is the best James Bond by far. Such an opinion, of course, reflects the age of your current writer.
With the financial and critical car crashes of Octopussy and A View to a Kill in the mid-1980s, the Bond franchise had apparently decided to throw itself off the Eiffel Tower without a parachute. It was time to rethink Bond for a “woke” audience, as we might say now, and Timothy Dalton decided to play the role more seriously than Moore but also downplayed the Don Juan aspect of the character. We could perhaps think of Dalton as a Bond in the age of AIDS trying to keep some of the thrill of spying alive during the dying embers of the Cold War.
Pierce Brosnan’s Goldeneye (1995) brought back the suave nonchalance that Dalton had eradicated and managed to reintroduce a charm that had been absent from the series for many years. However, it was the unlikely casting of the buff Daniel Craig in the most radical reboot of James Bond since Casino Royale that we see a return to the tortured assassin of the original novels. Craig is the object of desire in a much more overt way than Connery ever was and his reprisal of Ursual Andress’s scantily clad entrance out of the sea, makes Daniel Craig a Blond Venus of our contemporary age.
It looks now as if Craig will appear again in the next James Bond film, whenever that might be, but it seems that 007 still has our number.
Dr David Sorfa is a senior lecturer in film studies at Edinburgh University.
Edinburgh Spy Week runs from 5 to 12 April 2019 at Edinburgh University, National Library of Scotland and Edinburgh Filmhouse. Every film featuring a new James Bond will be screened at Filmhouse with a panel discussion about Bond and his actors on 9 April.